2.3.1 Wave Nature of Electromagnetic Radiation

In the mid-nineteenth century, physicists actively studied absorption and emission of radiation by heated objects. These are called thermal radiations.

They tried to find out of what the thermal radiation is made. It is now a well-known fact that thermal radiations consist of electromagnetic waves of various frequencies or wavelengths. It is based on a number of modern concepts, which were unknown in the mid-nineteenth century.

First active study of thermal radiation laws occured in the 1850’s and the theory of electromagnetic waves and the emission of such waves by accelerating charged particles was developed in the early 1870’s by James Clerk Maxwell, which was experimentally confirmed later by Heinrich Hertz.

Here, we will learn some facts about electromagnetic radiations. James Maxwell (1870) was the first to give a comprehensive explanation about the interaction between the charged bodies and the behaviour of electrical and magnetic fields on macroscopic level.

He suggested that when electrically charged particle moves under accelaration, alternating electrical and magnetic fields are produced and transmitted. These fields are transmitted in the forms of waves called electromagnetic waves or electromagnetic radiation.

Light is the form of radiation known from early days and speculation about its nature dates back to remote ancient times. In earlier days (Newton) light was supposed to be made of particles (corpuscules). It was only in the 19th century when wave nature of light was established. Maxwell was again the first to reveal that light waves are associated with oscillating electric and magnetic character.

Although electromagnetic wave motion is complex in nature, we will consider here only a few simple properties.

  • The oscillating electric and magnetic fields produced by oscillating charged particles are perpendicular to each other and both are perpendicular to the direction of propagation of the wave.


  • Unlike sound waves or waves produced in water, electromagnetic waves do not require medium and can move in vacuum.


  • It is now well established that there are many types of electromagnetic radiations, which differ from one another in wavelength (or frequency). These constitute what is called electromagnetic spectrum (Fig. 2.7).
  • Different regions of the spectrum are identified by different names. Some examples are: radio frequency region around 106 Hz, used for broadcasting; microwave region around 1010 Hz used for radar; infrared region around 1013 Hz used for heating; ultraviolet region around 1016Hz a component of sun’s radiation. The small portion around 1015 Hz, is what is ordinarily called visible light. It is only this part which our eyes can see (or detect). Special instruments are required to detect non-visible radiation.


  • Different kinds of units are used to represent electromagnetic radiation.

These radiations are characterised by the properties, namely, frequency (ν ) and wavelength (λ).

The SI unit for frequency (ν) is hertz (Hz, s–1), after Heinrich Hertz. It is defined as the number of waves that pass a given point in one second. Wavelength should have the units of length and as you know that the SI units of length is meter (m).

Since electromagnetic radiation consists of different kinds of waves of much smaller wavelengths, smaller units are used. Fig.2.7 shows various types of electromagnetic radiations which differ from one another in wavelengths and frequencies.

The other commonly used quantity specially in spectroscopy, is the wavenumber ( ). It is defined as the number of wavelengths per unit length. Its units are reciprocal of wavelength unit, i.e., m–1. However commonly used unit is cm–1 (not SI unit).

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